Presenting the Word week in and week out demands time and energy, but today's study tools make the primary job of the pastor much easier than in the past. Pastors who employ online study tools benefit greatly from their use in preparing to preach and teach.
My seminary professors grilled hermeneutics and epistemology into me with heavy doses of respect and fear of ever handling the Word incorrectly, so I take great care with the Scriptures. Technology has introduced a new way for me to carry out the interpretive principles I was taught. These tools help me stay on target, as 99 percent of the time I preach on one passage but pull in other passages to illustrate a particular truth.
Not only do these tools assist me with correct interpretation, but they also help me handle the demands of my schedule. In the last decade as I have traveled, spoken at conferences and preached Sunday morning messages, I have developed a certain rhythm for my study. My wife, Darla, and I both speak Sundays and utilize certain steps, although we may vary in how we use them. For instance, I now use YouVersion exclusively, but she still sometimes employs Bible Gateway. I use Logos Bible Software, but she complains of how cumbersome it is to navigate through so many options. As a result, she has developed her own work-arounds.
Although the Holy Spirit still speaks in analog methods, He also guides our digital preparation. In our case, we usually only preach three to five series a year, so our preparation can begin months in advance. However, if you are a busy bivocational pastor or are fighting for messages from week to week, this process will work for you as well. The following seven steps will help you to consolidate your own process and keep you true to the text:
1) Read and reread. Many pastors have studied both Greek and Hebrew in seminary, as I have. But for me, the best way to get to the heart of a passage is by reading the text repeatedly in a number of versions. I call this practice "Read 10 and Repeat." When I started to use digital platforms in my study, being able to effortlessly access many Scripture versions was a great benefit. Many times I'll read the same passage in 20 different versions. Key words and subtle nuances seem to jump off the screen during this process.
When looking for a "word" from God for the people of God who gather weekly, the availability of God's Word in digital tools allows pastors to step up their game. Rural pastors miles away from a theological library now have fingertip access to versions of the Bible they wouldn't be able to easily access otherwise.
Recently, I was reading 1 Samuel 17 in the Modern English Version (MEV) and noticed David carrying the same encouraging message to everyone, which ultimately put him in front of King Saul: "And he turned from him toward another and spoke in the same way. And the people answered him again as at the first. When the words which David spoke were heard, they reported them to Saul and he sent for him" (1 Sam. 17:30-31).
In my reading repetition, I noticed there were multiple dialogues inside this brief section. David was talking to his brothers and to the soldiers, which then led him to King Saul. In his audience with the king, we see a huge difference between faithful David and fearful Saul. In studying this passage, the practice of Read 10 and Repeat quickly uncovered these truths: David's words had brought him before King Saul, and his first words to Saul were to inspire courage in his heart, while Saul's first words were to discourage David's heart.
David tells Saul that he went after the lion and bear, struck the predator and delivered the lamb out of its mouth. Reading version after version, it became obvious that the narrator is pointing out that Goliath had the king and the entire Israelite army in his grip.
2) Focus on biblical accuracy. When you are reading a Scripture text using an online study tool and you perceive something on which to preach, you can easily capture the message and intent of the writer in an accurate manner. Through greater access and engagement with the text, digital tools enhance your ability to be more accurate in preaching.
3) Go mobile. As with location in real estate, mobility in technology is the gold standard and one that many pastors appreciate. On our church and school staff, we have 150 full-time people, and as you can imagine, this makes designating one day per week solely for prayer and Bible study a nearly utopian wish. I get a day or two to study, pray, read and write, but these times come in pockets. However, because of mobile technology, I have the ability to take advantage of small windows of time to study, no matter the kind of week I'm having.
Because of this mobility, I've migrated to YouVersion instead of any other program. First of all, it's free (Can I hear an "Amen"?). Second, it's fast and I don't have to download every Bible version unless I want to read them at 30,000 feet on a plane with no Wi-Fi. When the MEV translation was released by Passio (Charisma House), YouVersion had it ready for online use almost immediately. I have also used Olive Tree, Bible Gateway and other such tools, and frankly, I have no dog in this fight. For me, convenience trumps product loyalty.
4) Engage in smart research. Using an Internet search engine, I look up a Bible verse and add the name of a Bible scholar—dead or alive—to see what he may have written on the passage. Here's what I typed in my search window in the case of the David and Goliath story: 1 Samuel 17:35 (insert name of Old Testament scholar I have found helpful). In this case, nothing surfaced, but sometimes this type of search gives insight into an article or a book written on a particular Scripture verse.
During my reading and rereading of the text, certain words usually catch my attention. I examine the Greek or Hebrew, making sure I'm aware of the type of passage, whether poetry, wisdom literature, gospel or narrative, then I zero in on a specific narrative or verse. At this point, I usually switch over to Logos, with which I can hold my finger on a certain word to retrieve more information.
For example, versions differ in the wording of the 1 Samuel 17 passage. Some say David grabbed the lion and the bear by the "beard," while others use the word "jaw." As I was reading in Logos, I held my finger down on the word "beard," and a number of options appeared, calling me to examine the context more closely.
Many types of Bible software are available, so find the one with the online search function that suits you best.
5) Use the toggling technique. Toggling is the word I use to describe how I carry out my study in preparation for Sunday. I go back and forth depending on what challenges I run into with the text between YouVersion, Logos and any books I might have purchased on my e-reader in relation to the message.
Digital platforms give me the ability to move back and forth in the study process between text, original text, Greek and Hebrew word study and books. In constructing messages, I often sense the whisper of the Spirit as He prompts me to toggle back to another source to take me even deeper into the passage.
6) Email to self. Although there are other ways to do it, I email notes and Bible passages to myself during all of these steps. I do this while I'm working on my phone during one of those rare windows of opportunity I mentioned when I may or may not have access to paper and pen. I'll keep emailing myself, cutting and pasting content as delivery of the message draws closer.
7) Consider culture and context. Rarely—and I know I'll get hammered for this—do I consult commentaries anymore. Most of them are so dated and contextualized that the only good I get out of them are the word studies on the original language. I've never used a Spurgeon story because no one I'm speaking to cares about him or his cigars. But be sure to consider the culture and context of the passage on which you are preaching.
Preaching is not doing a book report on a passage you think would be helpful, but rather it's bringing a fresh word from heaven. A mentor once told me that preaching is simply commenting on your walk with God using the text. The Bible is alive, and releasing its truth through the Holy Spirit to God's people empowers those who will listen and heed the Word.
Dr. Mike Rakes and his wife, Darla, minister at Winston Salem First in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of Slings and Stones: How God Works in the Mind to Inspire Courage in the Heart.
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